The majority of Americans – 83 percent – know that vaccination is key to saving lives and preventing the spread of dangerous diseases. In fact, immunization prevents more than 2.5 million annual deaths in the United States and 6 million worldwide, and not only led to the eradication of smallpox but helped chart the course for the end of polio as well. The U.S. has even seen a 99 percent decrease in cases of nine specific diseases characterized by high fatality rates.
Unfortunately, a small yet vocal group of citizens has fallen prey to alarmism, misinformation, and fear-mongering regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. They often argue that vaccines cause autism or other disorders and that the government lies about vaccine safety as a measure of controlling the public. Professionals in the fields of both science and now law have contributed to their cause, supplying them with more “ammunition” when it comes to defending their choice to endanger others.
On June 21, 2017, the highest court in the European Union, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), made a decision controversial among those within scientific and legal fields: a French man identified simply as “W” won a case in which he argued that a vaccine he had received for hepatitis b caused him to develop multiple sclerosis (MS).
The case began in 2006, when the man’s family sued the vaccine manufacturer upon W’s diagnosis 7 years after receiving the immunization. W won the case in a French court on the grounds that, prior to the diagnosis, he had no health issues to speak of and no familial history of MS. However, there is no scientific evidence of cause-and-effect in this case; MS is likely caused by a combination of genetics, age, sex, race, and environmental factors such as climate, a history of smoking, and certain viral infections. W, then, proved no scientific link between the vaccine and his illness. The Court of Appeal of Versailles overturned the decision in 2011 due to that lack of evidence, but still maintained that his argument was valid because there was no proof that the vaccine did not cause him to develop MS, either.
W died later that year, but his family continued fighting in higher courts in France, where the decisions continued to change.
Finally, this year, the case made its way to the ECJ. W’s family argued that, because there was no certainty on whether the vaccine did or did not cause him to develop MS, circumstantial evidence must take the place of solid proof. Somehow, the ECJ agreed. They announced in a press release that “where there is a lack of scientific consensus, the proof of the defect of the vaccine and of a causal link between the defect and the damage suffered may be made out by serious, specific and consistent evidence.”
It’s inevitable that a legal decision in favor of vaccine skepticism will only contribute to the anti-vaccine rhetoric that has contributed to the resurgence of several diseases in some areas of the U.S.
Ammunition from the legal side is not the only support anti-vaxxers have: the myth that vaccines cause autism actually stemmed from a medical doctor named Wakefield. The ideas’ origins are still unscientific and likely fraudulent, and Wakefield had his medical license revoked after spreading this misinformation that vaccines are linked to autism. His study was limited to only 12 autistic children and their families and did not include any scientific testing but was based on anecdotes and drawing cause-and-effect conclusions without evidence.
Despite the complete lack of any scientific proof and the later repeated debunking of such claims, many skeptics still cling to the event as evidence supporting them because it was published by a doctor. Another factor contributing to anti-vaccine sentiment is that a majority of those in this group subscribe to anti-establishment ideas and a distrust of big institutions. For example, they claim that “Big Pharma” and the government hide the truth about vaccine safety from them, and that revoking Dr. Wakefield’s medical license was an act similar to silencing a whistleblower. This is why explaining the science of vaccines to an anti-vaxxer doesn’t change their mind – it’s not that most of them wouldn’t understand the science if they tried but that they believe it is some Orwellian conspiracy. Most of these kind of anti-vaxxer are younger and more politically liberal with a stronger sense of distrust for major institutions.
Of course, there are many who simply don’t understand the science, either, as documented by a Pew Research Center poll:
Luckily, many organizations are stepping up to promote scientific literacy in an age when we need it most:
The Genetic Literacy Project
Every Child By Two with partners Vaccinate Your Baby & Vaccinate Your Family.
Emily Rose is 17 years old and from Athens, Georgia. Beginning in fall 2017, she will attend Mercer University. She plans to double major in Journalism and Political Science and to minor in Global Development Studies. She is a writer, musician, activist, and feminist who hopes to use her platforms to inspire positive change by providing different perspectives on the world’s political and social issues.